The deep cleft of the Jordan Valley carries the River Jordan south from the Sea of Galilee (some 200m below sea level) to the Dead Sea (400m below). It’s a distance of only 104km as the crow flies, although the meandering river twists and writhes for more than three times that length. Set down in a deep gorge flanked by a desolate flood plain (the zor), the river is never visible from the main road, which runs through the ghor, or cultivable valley floor, well to the east. Flanked by 900m-high mountains on both sides and enjoying a swelteringly subtropical climate of low rainfall, high humidity and scorching temperatures, the valley, with its fertile alluvial soil, is perfect for agriculture on a large scale: this vast open-air greenhouse can produce crops up to two months ahead of elsewhere in the Middle East and can even stretch to three growing seasons annually. As early as five thousand years ago, foodstuffs from the valley were being exported to nearby states, and irrigation systems and urban development progressed hand-in-hand soon after. Agriculture has remained at the heart of the valley economy, from the wheat, barley, olives, grapes and beans of the Bronze Age to an extensive sugar-cane industry under the Mamlukes. Since the late nineteenth century, rapid development – and, in particular, the building of the King Abdullah Canal in the 1960s to irrigate the eastern ghor – has led to a burgeoning agricultural industry that supplies most of Jordan’s tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, melons and citrus fruits, as well as producing a surplus for export.
In contrast to the prosaic vistas of concrete piping, plastic greenhouses and farm machinery that characterize the area today, well over two hundred archaeological sites have been catalogued in the valley, although – with the notable exception of the Roman-Byzantine remains at Pella – almost all of them are Neolithic or Bronze Age settlements on the summits of tells, with little to see other than stone foundations. South of Pella, a few kilometres from the river’s outflow into the Dead Sea, lies the Baptism Site of Jesus.
Not all the attractions in the Jordan Valley are archaeological or agricultural. Tucked away in the hills about 9km south of Shuneh ash-Shamaliyyeh, and the same distance north of Pella, the Sharhabil bin Hassneh EcoPark offers a rare opportunity to explore the rolling valley landscape through walks, bike rides and nature tourism. Centred on the Ziglab Dam – and its long lake – the EcoPark was created by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a consortium of Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmental campaigners. From 2005 they have rejuvenated a damaged and heavily polluted stretch of terrain, which is now maintained mostly by volunteers, in conjunction with bedouin living on the land and villagers from local communities.
From the main gate, paths and driving routes lead to the Visitor Centre, set amid shady picnic areas, from where you can explore at will. Short circular walks of between thirty and ninety minutes lead around the protected area, with informational signboards explaining the work being done and identifying flora such as acacia and tamarisk, as well as birds, snakes, frogs and more (you can hire a guide to accompany you). Longer trails head out to explore further afield. Rising behind the Visitor Centre, the Ziglab Dam holds back a long, narrow lake of fresh water: it’s a magnificent sight, beneath raptors circling in the silent heat. Opportunities for walks abound – one route leads all the way around the perimeter of the lake (6.3km) – or contact Amman tour operator Tropical Desert Trips for details of their full-day wet/dry adventure hike around the lake using inflatable boats. Mountain bikes are available to rent from the Visitor Centre.
For archaeologists, Pella, comprising a large tell overlooking a well-watered valley protected by hills, is thrilling, possibly the most significant site in all of Jordan; evidence has been found of human activity in the area for nearly a million years, with extensive remains from almost all periods from the Paleolithic through to the Mamluke. The tell itself has been occupied for the last six thousand years almost without interruption. However, though it’s worth the journey, Pella can appear rather underwhelming to non-archaeologists, with little more than three ruined Byzantine churches to divert attention from the beautiful hill-walking all around. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful spot, and makes a pleasant stop on a journey along the Jordan Valley.
The reasons for Pella’s long history have much to do with its location on the junction of major trade routes: north–south between Arabia and Syria, and east–west between the Transjordanian interior and the Mediterranean coast. With its positioning almost exactly at sea level – the Jordan Valley yawns below – Pella has a comfortably warm climate and is watered both by springs in Wadi Jirm and by a reasonable annual rainfall. In addition, it was surrounded in antiquity by thick oak forests, since felled, which at more than one point provided the backbone of the city’s economy.
Stone Age hunters roamed the area’s forests and savannahs until about a million years ago, bagging native game such as elephants, deer and lions. By five thousand years ago, a Neolithic farming village was established, and remains have been uncovered of a larger, terraced settlement southeast of the tell. Around four thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age, there was a thriving city at Pella: discoveries dating from at least four main periods of occupation around the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries BC include luxury items imported from Egypt, Syria and Cyprus such as bronze pins, stylized sculpture, gold thread, alabaster bottles, cuneiform clay tablets and inlaid ivory boxes. In the thirteenth century BC, Pella was the principal supplier to Pharaonic Egypt of wood for chariot spokes. Iron Age cities flourished up to the seventh century BC, but during the Persian period (539–332 BC) it seems that the area was abandoned.
The Hellenistic period is the first for which the name of Pella can be found in historical records, and was a time of considerable affluence for the city. In 218 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus captured Pella on a sweep through Palestine and Transjordan, and soon the site spread over the tell, the slopes of Tell Husn opposite, the so-called “Civic Complex” area on the valley floor and the peak of Jabal Sartaba.
In 83 BC, the Jewish Hasmonean leader Alexander Jannaeus crossed into Transjordan from Palestine and sacked pagan Pella and its neighbours Gadara, Gerasa and others. The arrival twenty years later of Pompey and the Roman army imposed order in Pella as elsewhere in the Decapolis region, and the city settled down to a period of stability, minting its own coins and embarking on a programme of building. However, one legacy of the city’s location above a perpetually flowing spring is that, due to a rise in alluvium levels, it’s been impossible to excavate in the valley bed. Consequently, virtually nothing of the Roman period apart from a small theatre survives, although coins found here depict a nymphaeum, various temples, what is probably a forum, a baths and lavish public buildings dotted throughout the city.
A massacre of twenty thousand Jews in a single hour at Caesarea in Palestine in 66 AD fuelled a widespread Jewish revolt against Roman rule, and amid the turmoil the nascent Christian community of Jerusalem fled en masse to the relative safety of Pella – though they returned by the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, around 130 AD. Pella reached its zenith during the Byzantine fifth and sixth centuries, with churches, houses and shops covering the slopes of the tell and Tell Husn, and pottery from North Africa and Asia Minor indicating significant international trade. However, by the seventh century, the city was again in decline; in 635, Muslim forces defeated the Byzantine army near Pella, and the city reverted to its pre-Hellenistic Semitic name of Fahl. The devastating earthquake of 749 destroyed most of Pella’s standing structures, and the city lay abandoned for several centuries, with small groups of farmers coming and going throughout the Abbasid and Mamluke periods.
Although there may not be any buildings of substance left in Pella, it’s certainly in a beautiful location. Spring water cascades out of the ground on the floor of the Wadi Jirm; and the imposing bulk of the sheer Tell Husn to one side, the long, low tell on the other and Jabal Abu al-Khas between them (on which stands the modern, triple-arched Resthouse) enclose the little valley with high slopes of green, leaving only the vista westwards over the Jordan Valley.
Before you reach the main site, you’ll see the remains of the West Church behind barbed wire on the edge of the modern village. The church was built in the late fifth or early sixth centuries, in Pella’s prime, and is one of the largest Byzantine churches uncovered in the entire Middle East.
The main valley is dominated by the standing columns of the Civic Complex Church on the edge of the bubbling spring. All the re-erected columns belong to the church’s atrium; to the east, in front of a finely paved portico, are two exquisite columns of green swirling marble, one of which cracked in two as it fell in antiquity. The church itself, its columns collapsed like a house of cards, has three apses, and was originally decorated with glass windows, glass mosaic half-domes, stone mosaics on the walls and floor, and chancel screens of marble. The monumental staircase in front was added in the seventh century, when the valley floor was some two to three metres below its current level. To one side of the church is the bowl of a small Roman theatre, built in the first century AD to seat about four hundred; many of its stones were plundered to build the church staircase. Across the whole area of the modern springs, there may once have stretched a forum, with the stream channelled below through subterranean vaulting, some of which is still visible.
The steep path between the Civic Complex ruins and the Resthouse coils up the hillside past the columns of the small, atmospheric East Church, built in the fifth century overlooking the lower city and originally accessed by a monumental staircase from below. The atrium has a small central pool.
The tell itself – on the left as you face the Resthouse – is likely to excite only archaeologists. Although several different excavations have revealed dozens of levels of occupation over millennia, all there is to see for the layperson are the crisscrossing foundations of coarser and finer walls at different levels and a couple of re-erected columns. Of most accessible interest is a small Mamluke mosque close to the modern dig-house, with a plaque commemorating the decisive Battle of Fahl of 635. Excavations alongside it have unearthed the massive stone blocks of a Canaanite temple dating to 1480 BC, the largest yet discovered from that period. You’d have to be very keen to scale the precipitous Tell Husn opposite, in order to poke around the sixth-century Byzantine fortress on its summit.
Behind the Resthouse, Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash has built the private Pella Museum. It explores Jordan’s history before archaeology, showcasing fossils and exploring geological formations. Admission is strictly by appointment only; the website has contact information, or ask at the Resthouse.
Longer exploration of the area around Pella can take the form of a combination of ruin-hunting and adventure hiking – but you should discuss your plans first with Deeb Hussein at the Pella Countryside Hotel: he knows both the history and the topography of the area intimately. Another good resource is the book Walks, Treks, Climbs and Caves in Al Ayoun Jordan by Di Taylor and Tony Howard, which includes detail on walking routes from Pella into the highlands around Ajloun.
If you head past the East Church to curve up behind the Resthouse, you’ll find rough trails leading across the hills for an hour or more out to the peak of Jabal Sartaba. Here stands a Hellenistic fortress, rather less dramatic in itself than the remoteness of the location and the stunning views across the hills and valleys west into Israel and Palestine and east towards Ajloun.